Students’ drive for success leads to clean-powered cars

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Designing a power controller for electric cars is putting a team of NAU undergraduates on the fast track toward success and a cleaner environment.

Dubbed NAU Motor Systems, four electrical engineering seniors have buried their noses in circuits and engines for more than a year to craft a low-cost controller capable of powering a heavy vehicle.

“Electric vehicle enthusiasts should be able to purchase a less expensive and more powerful motor controller by summer,” said Nicholas Negrete, a Motor Systems team member. “It will be able to power 160 volts and over 500 amps and should cost about 25 percent less than comparable motor controllers currently on the market.”

The team formed last year during a junior level electrical engineering design class in the NAU’s College of Engineering, Forestry and Natural Sciences when Negrete, Christine KuhlmanJeremy King and Daniel Eichenberger built a prototype electrical circuit for a 12-volt battery. The success ignited their drive to continue working together to design a motor controller for electric vehicles, a challenge that also serves as the students’ senior capstone project.

An oscilloscope displays the output from the NAU Motor Systems prototype. The top waveform is showing the throttle pot at half its capacity. The bottom waveform is showing a 50 percent duty cycle.

“When we first got an actual circuit working, it was a big thing for all of us,” Eichenberger said. “We also saw the real results of getting an education.”

Negrete successfully sought project sponsorship from his employer, Electric Blue Motors—a Flagstaff company that designs electric vehicle components and converts cars to electric power. Besides donating work space and supplies, the company contributed a 1994 Range Rover Classic for the team to power using its new motor controller design.

“If we can move a Land Rover then we can move anything,” said Negrete who plans a career in the electric car industry. “This will be a great experience to have on our resumes.”

The team also built excitement for the project by seeking sponsorships from businesses, creating logos, stickers, flyers and an extensive web site.

“This experience will serve these entrepreneurial students well in the workplace where engineers are expected to design innovative solutions to complex problems, and it will give them an edge in obtaining financial backing for inventions they create in their careers,” said Allison Kipple, an NAU electrical engineering assistant professor and project adviser. “I’m impressed by the team’s motivation to learn. They frequently create tutorials to teach each other about innovative technologies.”

Kuhlman is glad she learned about cars. “I hadn’t planned on working on cars in college, but working with electricity has taught me how they work,” she said.

Electric Blue Motors will receive a completed product including schematics, CAD drawings, testing data results, packaging information, assembly instructions and a product manual.

“The hands-on experience with this project, especially designing circuits, really shows you how things work,” King said. “I never expected to have an opportunity like this one.”